Out of Context

Have you ever re-watched a movie as an adult that you liked as a kid and thought oh man, I totally got none of the jokes in this? Or if you’re an adult who spends time around kids, maybe you’ve chuckled at a joke that flew right over most tiny innocent heads. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just check out one of the many clickbait lists devoted to the phenomenon. The stuff kids miss isn’t always about sex or drugs, even though most of the examples in those links are. Disney’s Aladdin was my favorite movie growing up, but at four years old I was too young to fully appreciate Robin Williams as the Genie impersonating pop culture icons like Groucho Marx or Jack Nicholson.

Lots of time, especially in family films, the dissonance is intentional. Kids don’t go to the theaters by themselves, and sometimes the filmmakers want to throw in a treat for the grown-ups. After all, they pay for the tickets.

Even though reading is often a shared experience between generations, I haven’t seen as much of this phenomenon in books. There are tongue-in-cheek picture books like Go the F*ck to Sleep and All My Friends Are Dead, but they’re really aimed at adults. I got my nephew a Star Wars board book for his first birthday. He and his dad seemed equally amused by (for the first twenty readings or so), but I can’t think of any other instances of humor in books that children are really meant to miss.

Still, those moments of childhood obliviousness and adult recognition happen to readers, too. I think they’re a powerful argument for revisiting books from our youth. By the end of elementary school, I was capable of finishing books aimed at people much older than I was. Even if I understood the vocabulary, I didn’t always have the context, the background knowledge that the author assumed the average reader has. I still had a lot of fun reading those books at the time, and I enjoy the little “so that’s what that meant” moments I’ve had returning to them years later.

When I was in fifth grade, I did a book report on Cat Crimes for the Holidays. It’s exactly what it sounds like, a book of short mysteries all featuring cats and set around different holidays, including Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, and some less widely celebrated ones like Arbor Day. The teacher told me I could choose my favorite story from the bunch to do my report on. I picked the Halloween story, a short entry in Carole Nelson Douglas’s Midnight Louie universe, which features a black cat who solves crimes. The story was called “Iä Iä Iä- Iä! Cthlouie.”

At age ten I had never heard of H.P. Lovecraft or his Cthulhu Mythos, but I really loved that story. I got up in front of the class and chattered about Louie’s trip to Innsmouth while I showed off the little cut-paper tentacle monster I’d created as part of my visual presentation. I wish I could say the teacher was entertained, but I think she was as confused as my classmates. My love for Lovecraftian pastiche and parody endures to this day, and in fact eclipses my enjoyment of his original works.

There have been other many books I read without understanding their place in the larger canon, and I have really fond memories of some of them. In middle school I read The Knight of the Sacred Lake, the second of Rosalind Miles’ Camelot novels, without having read the first book or really knowing anything about Arthurian legend beyond The Sword and the Stone. Not only did I finish it, I think it ruined me for reading a lot of other Arthur stories, since I now have no patience for the ones that marginalize Guenevere and the other female characters. After my freshman year of high school I read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because a boy I liked thought it was a good book. I didn’t disagree with him on my first read, but almost two years later my English teacher made me learn something about Irish history and the meaning of the novel deepened. I started Jacqueline Carey’s Sundering duology, which is heavily based on Lord of the Rings, despite my total apathy towards Tolkein’s Middle Earth. Carey is one of my all-time favorites, so maybe I’ll even finish someday.

If there’s a lesson I’ve learned from tearing through stories that I wasn’t ready for, it’s that there’s no such thing as ready. There’s no need to track down every precedent and inspiration for what I read, unless that means I’m going to read more great literature in the process. When I ignore my inner completist and jump into a genre or series I don’t know anything about, I can learn things, and find new things to love.

And if I start to feel really lost, these days there’s always someone online who’s willing to explain the joke.


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